I’ve seen this park change a lot over the years like everything else in New York. When the junkies and homeless people were here, it was bad, of course, but never so ugly like Union Square less than ten blocks south. That park I’d go out of my way to avoid and I’d walk around it just to get from Union Square West to Union Square East. A lot of people would do that in the days before it gentrified. This park I didn’t avoid quite as mindfully but I certainly never sat down here to relax and think things over until after they cleaned it up. Once it became fully habitable again, I used to like to sit on the third bench down from the entrance on the northeast side which is where I usually came in. But I haven’t done so in recent weeks and I’ll tell you the story of why I haven’t.
One day not long ago I was sitting on my bench, and sitting on the bench right across from me was this man who didn’t really catch my eye all that much as there was nothing particularly interesting about him, just a guy I’d say in his late thirties wearing decent pants and shirt and a light suit jacket, no tie, but he was directly in my line of sight and I didn’t have anything to read with me, so I sort of just looked at him. He wasn’t reading anything either and he was staring out too but his gaze went right past me, I could tell he wasn’t seeing me one way or another. While we’re sitting there I notice this other guy walking toward us from the opposite side of the park. This other guy slows down and stops a few feet from the man on the bench. He just stands there and looks at him with a friendly but I’d also say a quizzical kind of smile.
“Hey there,” he calls over to the man after a minute or maybe two minutes. The man turns his head a mite and nods back, a little leery as most people would be of a total stranger greeting them like that. But he nods back politely enough. They were alike in some ways and not alike at all. Both were tall enough and both had grayish-blue eyes and medium brown hair. Neither was handsome but neither was unhandsome. Their cheekbones and noses and such were different from each other and yet neither one of them was distinctive. The biggest difference I can remember in how they looked was that the guy who was standing up smiled a lot and the guy who was sitting down didn’t smile at all.
“Have I seen you in the park before,” asked the man who was standing. Those might not have been his exact words, I can only quote from memory. The man who was sitting shrugged, non-committal. Then the man who was standing smiled more broadly and said, “I hope I’m not intruding” and, when the man who was sitting shrugged again, the man who was standing wheeled around in front of the bench and sat down next to him. So now they were both sitting.
It struck me as a little odd that he hadn’t even glanced in my direction, much less greeted me or sought to intrude on my privacy as well. “My name is Wheeler,” he said, which is maybe why I used the word “wheeled” to describe how he had come around and sat down next to the other man without being invited to, because unconsciously, at the moment I was about to write the word “wheeled,” I must have been remembering that his name was Wheeler. The unconscious mind is incredible the way it works!
The other man did not disclose his name but just sat there with a blank expression. “I’ve been living on East 22nd Street for six years now, and I like to at least be able to recognize neighborhood people when I see them,” said Wheeler. “Just a little nod on the street when you walk past, that can go a long way to making a soul feel at home. You know, it’s a way to establish as much trust as you can with people. It’s just a nice feeling to know you’ve got a lot of neighbors. Trust is really important, don’t you think, especially if the day ever arrives when you really need something from others or, much better, if you have something to offer to others that is really great.”
Maybe this is some kind of sales thing, I thought, especially because of how fluently Wheeler was talking, as if he were reading from a script. I really hate that, and I was almost tempted to leave so I wouldn’t have to overhear whatever creepy little sales pitch was coming. It’s so dreary. I remember I had these neighbors when I lived in Washington Heights who would knock on my door and force themselves on me every night until finally one night the guy started telling me about Shaklee and how he believed in Shaklee, and so on and so forth, while his fat wife sat beside him smiling with a pleased look on her pug face. She looked positively animalistic in her passivity. I don’t remember exactly how I extricated myself from the nightly ordeal, but I did, and they barely spoke to me again. So maybe Wheeler was setting this guy up for some kind of Shaklee or Amway thing, and perhaps he hadn’t bothered to acknowledge me because I guess maybe you can only sell to one buyer at a time, except, of course, for those big meetings they have that are open to the public where everybody gets to motivate everybody else. I actually went to one of those jamborees when I was out of work. It was awful.
“I didn’t catch your name,” said Wheeler.
I expected him to say, “I didn’t throw it,” which is the proverbial answer when you don’t care to give out your name after somebody says, “I didn’t catch your name.” But the man said something else, he said “Good fences make good neighbors.” He said it matter-of-factly with no hostility or sign of his having felt affronted. Just those few words with no particular inflection that I recall. It fascinated me, that he would say that and use those words, and I couldn’t help but become a little more interested in what was going on between these guys.
“Good fences make good neighbors,’” repeated Wheeler. “That’s from a poem, you know. You must love poetry.”
“Not particularly,” said the man.
“I am very interested in poetry,” said Wheeler. “In fact, I just read a poem by W.D. Snodgrass, have you heard of him?” The man shook his head. “What a name for a poet! What a name, period! W. D. Snodgrass! But it was a beautiful poem, I remember ‘an egg dyed lavender,’ that’s lovely, don’t you think? And I realized when I came to the end that all along he was writing a poem to his child from an earlier marriage, and it was painful the way the poem ends because the guy has moved on. Well, that’s how I interpreted the poem. It’s so sad when people move on, sad for the people left behind and sad for the person who has to do the moving on. It’ll be awhile before I read another poem because, you know, it’s a very intense experience, I mean if the poem is any good. And this one, by W.D. Snodgrass, it just broke my heart.”
I was a little surprised the man didn’t simply get up and leave. He certainly had no interest in poetry and it must have occurred to him, as it had to me, that Wheeler was just crazy. In fact, Wheeler had not stopped smiling that weird smile of his since he first accosted the man.
“If you don’t want to tell me your name,” said Wheeler with hardly a pause, “make one up.”
For the first time the man made a perceptible body movement, a slight one to his left so that he faced Wheeler a little more directly. But I could see that he wasn’t really looking into Wheeler’s eyes, he was looking past him as before he had looked past me. “Joe,” he said blankly.
“Joe,” repeated Wheeler. “As in ‘cup of Joe.’ Or Joseph, which, did you know, means ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ Do you have children?”
“Yes,” he answered, volunteering nothing further.
“Ah, so the cup of Joe runneth over,” said Wheeler, now with an insidious sort of tone to his voice.
Maybe this is some kind of sex thing, I thought, which might also account for how Wheeler had ignored me and fastened on “Joe.” I thought again that maybe I should leave, if only for Joe’s sake. I know when other men used to try to pick me up, I’d have been embarrassed for anyone else around to overhear even though I’d always say no and that was that. But it’s funny, just being asked is kind of compromising, as if you’ve been sexually exposed simply because somebody wants you. It kind of defines you as a target, and I just don’t want other people perceiving me like that. I’m sure it works the same way with women. I remember this friend of mine confiding that he hit on a woman we both knew. She said no but it made me start to think of her sexually, which I had not done before. It was as if she’d been put in play and there was no going back for her. She became Someone In Whose Pants People Want To Get. I guess you can’t help being an object sometime or another and for some reason or another.
“What do you do for a living, Joe?” asked Wheeler.
“I get by,” said Joe.
“I’m an indexer,” said Wheeler, ignoring Joe’s non-response. “A lot of people think that must be the most horrible boring painstaking thing you can do, at least in the book business, and I suppose it can be. In fact, I knew an indexer who committed suicide, Glenn his name was, he hanged himself or went out a window, I don’t recall which. And when I was talking about it with somebody, the fact that he was an indexer was mentioned, jokingly of course, as the reason poor Glenn took his own dear life but, all joking aside, who knows, maybe it was a reason if not the reason.”
Joe shifted back to his original position so that he was once again gazing in my direction. For a third time, I really wanted to leave and I was getting hungry besides. But then Wheeler said, “Indexing can be a sacred mission, a thing you do for God.” I kept seated because this I had to hear!
Maybe this is some kind of religious thing, I thought, and Wheeler was about to spring a sermon on Joe or try to convert him to something, to Jesus most likely. But then why would he be ignoring me, I was sitting so close, I could hear everything. You can convert more than one person at a time, can’t you? It can be a group thing, can’t it? When I was younger, a guy approached me with four or five nice-looking young ladies as if he were going to suggest something salacious, like an orgy, which I was young enough then to definitely be open to. But in a few minutes, we were talking about Jesus, and I guess I’ve always been open to that as well provided the topic is broached in the right way, although what that right way is I cannot really articulate. I wonder if he had those girls with him as a strategy to entrap sinners or guys looking to sin, then surprise them instead with the prospect of a pure love and an unstinted love and an unqualified love. What if I had said, I’ll convert to Jesus if you let me have sex with some of these girls. But of course I said no such thing.
“Really?” asked Joe, but I couldn’t tell if he actually cared one way or another about how indexing is a holy thing, or if he was just being vaguely polite. Why he would care at all about being polite, I have no idea.
“You’ve read The Gulag Archipelago, haven’t you?” Wheeler asked, but Joe shook his head indifferently. He probably didn’t know what Wheeler was talking about. “Well, it’s a great book that has a good index, but it’s my dream to do a really great index for that book or other books like it.” Wheeler waited for a response and when none was forthcoming, he said, “Each and every human being who perished in that era was a child of God, and his or her name must be memorialized, there must be a record for God’s sake and for our own.”
I was struck by what Wheeler said and by the passion that suddenly reverberated in his voice in lieu of the insinuating slightly nasal tone that was there before. Yet the same cloying aggressive smile remained on his lips. After the briefest pause, he continued, “Solzhenitsyn could not possibly capture every name of every child of God who perished, I think there were twenty million for goodness sakes, but recording the truth is what the book is all about, so, you see, the indexer participates in a sacred mission when he creates this alphabetical list, when he records the names of the blessed lost ones with page numbers so we can find and hallow each of the millions of names we must never forget. That’s why names are so important. I’ve told you that my name is Wheeler. Won’t you please tell me yours?”
I felt very tense at that moment. I don’t know why I felt very tense, why should I care one whit about it, but I did.
“Joe,” he said.
“Your name really is Joe?” asked Wheeler. The man nodded. “There have been many souls called Joe,” Wheeler continued. “You could do an index. Joe Biden who was elected President. Joe Cocker who was a rock and roll person. Joe McCarthy who was a Senator. Joe Morgan who was a second baseman. Joe Namath who played football. Joe Smith who played trumpet. Joe Stalin who created the Gulag. Oh my, how things do come full circle!”
“Right,” said Joe.
Then Wheeler for the first time seemed at a loss for words. Joe veered again to face him and again gazed past him, in the general direction of Grand Central Station. I felt this incredible fear, like I was in the presence of something huge and horrible, and that I needed to get away from it very fast and never see it again. I jumped up and started walking south, in the opposite direction from Joe’s gaze that now seems so cruel in my memory, and I felt that this guy Wheeler was in terrible danger from forces, I can’t say what they are, but I felt them that day suddenly so alive and ambient in Madison Square Park. Like I said in the beginning, I haven’t sat there on my bench in weeks because I’ve dreaded to see them again, either one or both of them, yet I don’t know how to guarantee that I won’t ever someday see them again unless I stay out of the park forever. But I’d hate that, to be exiled from the park like that forever.
Larry Smith’s story collections, A Shield of Paris and Floodlands were published in 2019 by Adelaide Books. His novella, Patrick Fitzmike and Mike Fitzpatrick, was published in 2016 by Outpost 19. A Pushcart-nominated writer, Smith’s stories have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Serving House Journal, Sequestrum, Exquisite Corpse, The Collagist, and [PANK], among numerous others. His poetry has appeared in Descant (Canada) and Elimae, among others. Smith lives in New Jersey. Visit Larrysmithfiction.com.